The SAT high schoolers have been doing lately is not the one you knew. Since 2005, the word analogies – like querulous is to complain as deceitful is to cheat — have been scrapped and students have been required to write an essay instead. Lots of people thought this meant having to show “real” language skills – no more of those “mechanical” analogies.
Well, the verdict is in. It turns our that the essays measure nothing meaningful – or at best, they measure a student’s ability to “bullshit on demand” as MIT’s Les Perelman puts it. Some of this may be that written work is simply incompatible to a standardized test where millions of people must get measured against each other. Evaluators are encouraged to take as little as two minutes to grade these essays. But that means students regularly get high scores for essays written with no regard for fact – who has time to check? – or that don’t even reflect anything they actually believe or feel. Plus they are told they should write with fancy words to look smart. Something is very wrong here. The SAT, created to identify quality of mind in students regardless of background, is now encouraging students to write in a fake and pretentious way.
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There is, in fact, very little value in making students, or anybody, write an essay in under a half hour if the idea is to assess writing ability. The task corresponds to nothing almost anyone is ever asked to do in life. It’s like a driving test that requires jumping two rivers and stopping on a dime. Meanwhile, what would show an actual advanced mastery of language is those grand old analogies thrown out so confidently in 2005. The movement against analogies started in 2001 with then-University of California President Richard Atkinson broadcasting his dismay at seeing 12-year-old students being drilled in – gasp! – vocabulary. Since then, there has been a widespread movement, from elementary school up to college prep, that it’s backwards to teach students specific words. Many fourth and fifth grade classes have no spelling tests—instead, students are told to go find words they need to “work on.
Someone who has refused this trend is William Dowling, a Rutgers University English professor who has argued that mastery of advanced vocabulary is vital to understanding the texts that college education presents students with. Back when the SAT still included the analogies, he found that the verbal portion of the test correlated quite well with the final grades of his students, and regardless of socioeconomic status. One actual SAT question at the time was “The traditional process of producing an oil painting requires so many steps that it seems ______ to artists who prefer to work quickly. (A) provocative (B) consummate (C) interminable (D) facile (E) prolific.”
The mastery of such words paves the way to reading serious prose, while the writing test paves the way to writing in a canned, formulaic style. It generates mediocrity not just in the present but the future. Since we have abandoned teaching them what words mean, once they get to college they will write in a hollow, semiliterate way, formally passable but mentally vacuous. At least they’ll get to do it slowly.
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Russian students are steeped in the rococo vocabulary of Pushkin. Orthodox Jewish men are trained in the subtleties of Biblical Hebrew words. Most of us would be baffled to watch students in, say, Italy being taught formal words in their beautiful language and having someone stand by sneering at it as mechanical. Yet wise educators here in the US somehow see things differently. Our make-or-break-it tests must measure a student’s ability to write an elevated rendition of jabbering. Never mind whether she knows what prolific, forlorn, or extemporaneous even mean.